In Support of Introverts, by Rachel Stockton, LCSW
“Most people who have grown up introverted in this very extroverted culture of ours have had very painful experiences of feeling like they are out of step with what’s expected from them.” - Susan Cain
I felt validated when I read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” As an introvert myself, and a mom to two introverts, I have always been aware of how difficult it can be to take care of your need for solitude while at the same time navigating a culture that is geared toward the preference of extroverts for a lot of social activity and external stimulation. What I hadn’t realized is just how pervasive the messages are that introversion is an affliction or a handicap to be overcome. On some level, I think I had internalized these messages that, as an introvert, I wasn’t quite measuring up.
For those that aren’t familiar with the terms, introverts tend to be focused inward on thoughts and feelings and need solitude to recharge. Extroverts, on the other hand, are more oriented toward social activities and recharge by being around people. These aren’t necessarily either/or categories but should be viewed as more of a continuum with many people somewhere toward the middle (ambiverts). To be clear, there is no right or wrong here, both introverts and extroverts (and ambiverts) can be interesting, friendly, hard working, and good leaders. It only becomes a problem when our unique traits and contributions are not accepted and valued by the communities in which we live, work, and socialize, or, even more damaging, when we ourselves fail to acknowledge and appreciate our own worthiness.
For many, the word “introvert” evokes an image of someone who is shy, aloof, socially awkward, and generally not a lot of fun. However, these are stereotypes that are not only untrue but also miss many of the positive traits that are often found in introverts. Most introverts like people, but prefer meaningful conversation and intimate settings over small talk and big parties. Introverts might appear to be shy or aloof but more often than not they are acutely sensitive to their environments and are quietly listening, observing, and taking it all in. In our fast-paced world, an introvert at a party, in a business meeting, or in the classroom, might not have time to formulate what they want to say before they’ve lost your interest, thus giving the very wrong impression that they have nothing to offer.
Introverts make up anywhere from 1/3-1/2 of the population, yet our society (referring to mainstream American culture) seems to disproportionately favor traits associated with extroversion. Specifically, people who are outgoing, charismatic, action-oriented, work well with groups, speak out and get noticed. In contrast, the contributions of introverts, who tend to be quiet, contemplative, and slower to jump to action, often go unrecognized. As Cain points out, in our extrovert-oriented work and educational environments, we tend to mistakenly associate talking and speaking out in groups with intelligence. The introvert who is listening and processing information may not speak out in a group environment and, if not given other avenues of expression, may never be heard. Further, there is a tendency to invalidate introverts with such comments as you need to get out of your shell, or be friendlier, or make more of an effort to participate in group activities.
Many studies have been done on the differences between introverts and extroverts and, for me, one of the most compelling studies demonstrated a higher sensitivity to external stimuli in introverts (Eysenck, H). This means, essentially, that if you put introverts into a very stimulating environment, such as a loud restaurant or, for a child, a schoolyard at recess time, they are more likely to feel overwhelmed or anxious. An open office plan or classroom setting with lots of noise, activity and interruptions could be stimulating and conducive to productivity for an extrovert while, for the mind of an introvert, this can be a torment and a hindrance to doing their best work. For introverts to thrive, we need to recognize their strengths and limitations and create an environment that takes into account their need for solitude and quiet reflection.
To be clear, I am not advocating that introverts simply throw in the towel and refuse to participate in any extrovert-oriented activities. Introverts might need to step out of their comfort zones to pursue their goals but, rather than “pretending” to be extroverts, they can do this in a way that is authentic and honors their strengths and individuality. For example, introverts can absolutely be fun-loving and adventurous - they just might need to plan their adventures before jumping in. Introverts can be effective public speakers, such as the academic that spends hours in front of a classroom, if they are engaged in something that has meaning to them and are motivated to share their work. When introverts step out of their comfort zone to pursue the things that are important to them, they can be perceived as extroverts. The difference is that the introvert will need to schedule in time for solitude and reflection to rejuvenate and prevent burnout.
As I’ve stated, our society seems to favor extroverts meaning there is no shortage of open office plans, brainstorming sessions, and group meetings that provide the opportunity for extroverts to shine. It is no wonder that extroversion is considered by many to be more socially desirable. But that is not the end of the story. As our society continues the dialogue about introversion/extroversion, it is my hope that introverts, and the people that care about them, will not just acknowledge their differing needs and skills, but will advocate for the space that they need to thrive. It takes all kinds to create this beautiful tapestry we call the human experience and, when we fail to value the diverse skills and attributes that each person brings to the table, then we are all the poorer for it. In the words of Susan Cain, “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking. New York; Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.
Eysenck, H.J. Personality: Biological foundations. P.A. Vernon (Ed.), The neuropsychology of individual differences, Academic Press, London (1994), pp. 151-208.